On Tao Lin’s ‘Trip,’ targeted advertising, and finding scraps of life in books.

On Tao Lin’s ‘Trip,’ targeted advertising, and finding scraps of life in books.

Featured image: artwork by Tao Lin on Flickr.

trip

I recently borrowed my local library’s copy of Tao Lin’s Trip.  I read ten pages before a business card fell out.  I didn’t find the other until about a hundred pages later.  The cards were really crammed in there – I often read at nap- and bedtime, lying on my back, with little feet kicking my books, belly, neck, etc.  I’m surprised the second card wasn’t ejected earlier.

In Trip, Lin writes about drugs and some of the people who frequently ingest them.  For instance, Lin spent several months reading the oeuvre of Terrance McKenna, a passionate advocate for the legalization of psychedelic drugs (which I support) who argued that his chemical-induced visions (language elves, fractal time) represent tangible features of our universe (which I think is asinine).  At other times, McKenna self-described as a “psychonaut,” which I think is a better term – compounds that perturb the workings of a mind do reveal truths about that mind.

That’s the essence of the scientific method, after all.  First, formulate a predictive model about how something works.  Then, perturb your system.  If your prediction holds up, try to think of a different test you could make to try to prove yourself wrong.  If your prediction is off, try to think of a new model.  Repeat ad infinitum (physicus usque ad mortem).

In an undergrad-designed psychology experiment, the perturbation might be to compel a study subject to think about death by mixing a lot of photographs of car wrecks into a slide show.  Does a person exposed to these images seem more inclined to spend time with close family members (based on the results of a 30-question survey) than equivalent study subjects who were instead shown photographs of puppies?

Maybe you’d learn something from that.  But, honestly, 0.5 mgs per kg of psilocybin is a more powerful perturbation.

(A man who has been attending my poetry class for the past few months also self-describes as a Buddhist psychonaut – his favorite psychedelic is LSD, but he also struggles with a nagging impulse to shoot heroin.  He’s a vegetarian and has been writing poetry for twenty years, ever since his first friend died of overdose.  The only way for him to avoid prison time is to enroll at a court-mandated Christian-faith-based rehabilitation clinic where everyone works daily at the Perdue Meats slaughterhouse.  He’s just waiting on a bed before they ship him out there.  Personally, I think that having a recovering addict decapitate hundreds of turkeys daily would be an unhealthy perturbation of the mind.)

As Lin researched pharmacology, he realized that he’d made the same error in thinking about his body that our society has made in thinking about our environment, especially the oceans.  He’d assumed that his body was so large, and each drug molecule so small, that he’d be relatively unchanged as the pills he swallowed were metabolized away.  But he was wrong.  He’d turned his own body into a degraded environment that felt terrible to live inside.

He realized that corporations shouldn’t have free license to destroy the world that we all share.  And he realized that he needed to practice better stewardship of his body, his own personal environs.  He changed his diet and his lifestyle and no longer felt like garbage all the time.

good dayLin also provides some useful information about this country’s War on Drugs.  If someone was looking for an accessible way to learn more about this, I can see myself recommending either Trip (for the dudes in jail) or Ayelet Waldman’s A Really Good Day (for the harried parents working alongside me in the YMCA snack room).

And those business cards?  They made convenient bookmarks.  Verdant green, the front advertised a local hydroponics supply store, the back listed the store manager’s name and telephone number.

This seemed like a great advertising strategy.  Much more precise (and less evil) than Facebook’s targeted ads.

I won’t be buying any hydroponics supplies, but I’ll probably put those business cards back before I return the book.

Most of what I’ve found in books has been less directly relevant to the subject matter.  I felt dismayed to find a business card for a local artist / writer / model / actor – the front showed her in pinup-style undergarments with the cord for a video game controller entwining one stockinged leg – inside a library copy of Against Our Will by Susan Brownmiller.

When I flipped through one of Deepak Chopra’s new-age self-help books (that I pulled off the secondhand inventory shelf at Pages to Prisoners to mail to someone who’d requested stuff about UFOs, Wicca, and conspiracies), I found a Valentine’s Day note (written by a small child in crayon) and a polaroid of a tired-looking bare-breasted woman staring  at the camera from atop a camper’s bed.  MWPP totally would’ve gotten dinged if I’d mailed the book with that picture still inside.

And I’ve written previously about the time I found an acceptance letter from Best of Photojournalism inside a previous year’s edition of the book as I selected books to mail to a prisoner interested in photography.

P8011600.JPG

But I didn’t mention that I visited the university library to find the accepted photograph (of a stretch of highway closed for the emergency landing of a small plane in distress) …

P8011599.JPG

… or that I then put together a package of books to send to that photographer, because it turned out that he was also in prison after murdering his son-in-law.

The impression I got from news reports was that this man had a daughter whom he’d raised alone.  When his daughter was 13 years old, she fell in love with an abusive, oft-unemployed 19-year-old.  She soon became pregnant.  As it happens, this boyfriend took too many drugs.  I’ve met many men in jail who are totally charming while sober but (“allegedly!”) wail on women when they’re not.  Some are quite frequently not sober.

During this man’s trial, several witnesses testified to the violent physical abuse his daughter was subject to.  His daughter’s boyfriend “would grab ____, jerk her by the face, force her to go places, cuss her out if she didn’t do the right thing … “

Not that this is a reason to shoot somebody.

Still, I wondered how a book from the man’s personal library had wound up in the inventory of the Pages to Prisoners bookstore.  The murder occurred in August of 2012.  Mid-autumn, 2015, his book was on our shelves.

I like to imagine that his daughter made the donation.  That perhaps, by then, she’d forgiven her father.  That she’d realized how miserable U.S. incarceration can be and wanted to do a little something to make it better.

I certainly hope that his book helped people at the prison where I sent it.

 

On reading Playboy from the 1970s.

On reading Playboy from the 1970s.

 A few years ago, the Kinsey Institute culled their library of some of its lesser pornography.  A friend of mine stopped by their clearance sale, although perhaps “sale” is not quite the right word.  He said they’d set out many tables and crates full of pornography and encouraged anyone who stopped by to take as much as they could carry.  He picked up a stack of Playboy for himself and a slender volume of sex mythology for me.

His newfound collection of Playboys included a smattering from each decade, chosen seemingly at random except for his birth month (Feb 1986) and the issue featuring “Lena,” the standard Matlab test image (Nov 1972), shown here.  (Her face contains zero intracellular transport vesicles — I know, because I wrote an algorithm to check.)

The old Playboys — the ones from the sixties and seventies — were actually pretty good magazines.  They had fiction from serious writers like Nabokov and Updike, fescennine illustrated poetry from Shel Silverstein, long interviews from activists like Joan Baez, Jesse Jackson, Muhammad Ali, Jean Paul Sartre, and photo spreads directed by Salvador Dali.

And the editorial content was rife with predictions that, for instance, marijuana legalization was right around the corner.  “Within five years…” they claimed.  Well, things didn’t turn out quite how they expected.  Even now, harmless people languish in prison in Colorado, doing time for marijuana possession.

Yes, Playboy was a pornographic magazine.  There were photographs of naked women.  But not as many as I’d expected based on what I’d heard growing up.  The vast bulk of every issue was plain text.  And, importantly, the naked women in those photographs were generally woman-shaped, with all the trappings of post-pubescence, as opposed to hairless too-thin figurines like autopsy-table aliens.

(Although, no offense intended to those of you who are naturally shaped that way.  I, too, am jut-boned rib-count thin, although my body is also hairy like a hobbit, hirsute foot-tops and all.  Still, you, too, dear slender reader, deserve to be loved, and I hope whomever you find gradually adapts until his or her ideal matches your image.

PB_CHAMPAGNE-AND-C_2790596kMy contention is just that aesthetic taste is not inborn, and amongst a population need not be monolithic.  Left to their own devices, most humans would show a preference for symmetry and for people who resemble others who’ve been nice to them in the past.  Whereas modern advertising culture is designed to imprint the same desires on the majority of adolescent minds.

Certainly people who are shaped like the modern pornographic ideal — which seems vaguely reminiscent of X-Files Greys except with porcelain skin, long blonde hair, and the top-heaviness starting some 18 inches lower than for a species selected for massive brains — should also be considered beautiful by those whom they treat kindly.  But given the infrequency with which that physique occurs naturally, it seems unhelpful for entire generations of males to be pre-programmed to seek that form.)

There were problems with the magazine, sure.  It was good that the naked women in their photographs looked like human adults, which seems like a good minimum standard for pornographic magazines to live up to, but early Playboy still propagated a very narrow ideal of beauty.  Many of their photospreads, especially in their barely-distinct-from-paid-advertising fashion sections, juxtaposed near-naked women with fully-clothed men, conveying unsettling ideas about power dynamics between the genders.  Which was made worse by some of the cartoons: workplace sexual harassment was a common theme and was always presented as either harmless fun or, worse, a side benefit of women’s entrance into the workforce.

But Playboys from the sixties and seventies were a far sight better than more recent offerings.  By the nineties, the articles were worse, content the magazine’s “readers” would probably skip over, and far more of the pages were taken up by naked photographs.  By the nineties, most of the women shown were underfed, with surgically-modified balloon breasts, airbrushed smooth skin, and prepubescent hairlessness.

And yet, while I was reading Mark Leibovich’s recent New York Times article (“Donald Trump Is Not Going Anywhere”), I came across this line:

Trump motioned to the gallery of magazine covers on the wall next to him, which included an issue of Playboy from 1990 (“And that’s when it was really Playboy”)

By 1990, the readable magazine that paired pornography with serious content was dead.  So it’s unclear what Trump would mean by claiming that it was “really Playboy” then.

CQEgFUhW8AAAP6V-640x479Maybe you think it’s silly that I’d expect any of Trump’s claims to have a logical basis.  But I think there’s a very real chance that the man will win the U.S. presidency.  He’s boorish, racist, misogynistic, jingoistic, narcissistic.  He has extremely crass taste judging by the gaudy buildings he’s emblazoned with his name (not to mention all the other low-quality overpriced products).  He’s obsessed with celebrity and celebrities in the worst way (also from Leibovich’s article — why would anyone be impressed that Bobby Knight support him?  Knight is also a knuckleheaded bully who reaped a fortune creating nothing of value).  His only credentials are his ability to arrest attention on television and his financial prowess, although the repeated bankruptcies and clear cronyism cast a pall over the latter.

All of which means he seems perfect for America.  He embodies the national id of large swaths of our population so well, the United States as represented by grocery-store-checkout-aisle magazines.  Plus, whatever else there is to say about the man, he does have a semblance of integrity.  When he spouts off asinine trash, it doesn’t seem as though he’s regurgitating a prepackaged focus-grouped speech penned by a marketing team.  Given what we’re used to from politicians, that impresses a lot of people.  It impresses me, and I think he’s a horrible human being.

His ideas are stupid — Playboy from 1990? — but he came up with those stupid ideas himself.

And, right, getting back to when I think the magazine was really Playboy, I was surprised that my favorite feature, flipping through them, were the advertisements.  It’s interesting to see the difference in aspirations and expectations for young people between the 1970s and now.

dude with prospects and a car

There’s not really a contemporary magazine that’s a cultural equivalent to what Playboy was then, but I’d say Rolling Stone comes closest.  Each issue of Rolling Stone has a huge amount of fluff, but their one or two real news articles are often quite good.  And, the millennial-targeted advertisements in Rolling Stone?  They’re for video games, sneakers, TV shows, vaporizers.  Far cheaper than the house and car and incipient family intimated by ads from Playboy in the 1970s.  Is that lifestyle still within reach of the majority of today’s young magazine readers?

Flipping through an issue, there were also advertisements for guns, cars, cameras, wine… (Paul Masson is telling me that his wine tastes good, but should I trust those eyes?).

gun ad

scary guy selling wine

…and my personal favorite: cigarettes.  Here’s a choice cigarette advertisement for you.  “Golden Lights.  You really know you’re smoking.”

cigarette ad

Um, sure.  That man probably knows he’s smoking.  But he looks miserable!  Does he want to really know he’s smoking?

That sort of advertisement is probably strongly correlated with when Playboy “was really Playboy.”  There were warnings on cigarette ads, but the big companies were still trying to maintain the whole “They’re not that addictive!  They’re not going to kill you!” charade.  And yet their advertisements could depict the sheer misery of smoking.

You don’t get that anymore.  Now vaping ads are all cool graphics and happy people and it’s clear how easy gobbling your nicotine would be.  Which I understand, from a seller’s perspective.  You want your product to seem desirable.  But for me, someone who is interested in the magazine as a cultural artifact, it’s more fun to see cigarette ads that show their models suffering.

**************************

POSTSCRIPT: In the time between when I wrote this and when it was posted, Playboy made an announcement about their incipient editorial changes. Soon their photographs of naked women will not depict nipples or genitalia — to my mind, a fairly minor change, but other people have different opinions about which parts of the human body should be shown.

Still, the announcement was made after Trump’s declaration that 1990 was when Playboy was really Playboy. So, unless the dude has insider information about contemporary pornographic publishing, that’s not what he was talking about.